The Spanish born NYC based artist Rosa Valado has prompted in her immersive installations multi-layered sensory experiences, utilizing diverse approaches, from the smell of burning wax and music to architectural elements and engineering problem solving. Throughout her body of work which includes besides installation, drawings and paintings, she has been exploring notions of space and time by engaging with ideas on architecture and light. Rosa Valado shares with Art Spiel some of her formative art experiences, her process, ideas, and projects.
AS: Tell me a bit about yourself
Rosa Valado: I was born in Northwest Spain and came to New York City at the age of eleven so my education from 6th grade through High School was all here. I went back to Spain after High School and began my art studies in Madrid, got married and had a baby within the year. After moving through several different schools I completed my art degree at Queens College – City University of New York.
The Art Department had a very strong formalist curriculum. Some members of the faculty had created a curriculum for a strong painting program faithful to the platform of the early 20th Century heroes, with Cezanne at the center. Abstract Expressionism and all that followed in American Art was discouraged, as were career and market-driven aims; “structural” formalism approach was rewarded. On the other hand, the Art History Department, where I probably spent as much time, seemed to be looking forward, embracing Postmodern ideas and it was very exciting. For instance, Robert Pincus-Witten loved sharing behind-the-scenes stories besides new ways of looking and thinking about art. He could talk at length about Claes Oldendenburg’s girlfriend who sewed all the soft sculptures“ and then got left behind”, or about Pollock’s Jungian analysts’ failed attempts to treat Pollock’s drinking problem.
I enjoyed that tension between the Art and Art History Department. It was one of the best times of my life. In one of my abstract painting classes I was assigned a drawing on compartmentalized space. I went straight to the Medieval section of my art history book and made a drawing from the tympanum sculpture of Vezeley cathedral in France. The drawing came out looking very “cubist”, and with that exercise, an important door to my memory opened. The piece atmosphere, infused with earthy smells, dim lighting, art and music, the dramatic unfolding of the rituals from childhood within the Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals– all came back to me, and I knew I needed to explore these sources through my art.
AS: How do you think your installation work has developed till now?
Rosa Valado: During my residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, straight after graduation in 1989, I made my first installation. In my studio space I created an environment with painting, 3-d architectural elements, sculpture, earth, and light. Shortly after I arrived there, I replaced oils and canvas with water-soluble materials and heavy watercolor paper, and worked on the floor with brushes, hands, and sticks. I reduced color to an earth palette, and worked from inside the piece – line over brushstroke, adding layers of paper and pulp, like layers of skin on the surface.
There I made my first attempts at welding, tacking rusty pieces of metal together, tying and wrapping with wires. The rawness, direct expression, and presence of the hand, which is now having a renaissance, was not so prevalent then. In the 90’s, the Whitney program and the CalArts programs still encouraged a very minimal and conceptual approach. Many of my peers were coming out of these programs. I appreciated the different types of creative thinking and for me the conceptual aspect of the work was also very important, but personal and direct emotional engagement with the work was equally necessary. It was a great place to share ideas and see different creative approaches.
Once visiting artists Leon Golub and Nancy Spero were coming up for talks and studio crits, and I was asked to pick them up with my big old Buick. On the way back they wanted to stop for ice-cream and when we talked about art, formalism, and structure, Nancy said, “why do you even need structure?” That was a little shocking to hear because the word “structure” had been so important as a student – that conversation has stayed with me over the years. The richness of this entire experience left me with a sketchbook of possibilities.
The invitation to do a site-specific piece at the Boathouse in 1991 came within a year of my time at Skowhegan. It was my first real public site-specific 3-D piece and gave me the opportunity to develop my interactive architectural ideas on a much bigger scale, as well as my engineering skills. I constructed three metal arches, each 14′ high by 8′ wide, same size of the existing doors, and created the bulk of the artwork on the top sections so that people could still walk through the doors. I approached the sculptural elements in a painterly way, using copper, tin, brass, rusty scrap metal and steel. Installing the peace securely was tricky since the building is land-marked and there was to be no drilling into the walls or doorways. That kind of engineering problem-solving was exciting to me and very informative for future projects.
AS: I can see strong immersive architectural elements in your installation work. It seems that the experiential element is central in your work. I guess that ties with your interest in performance. How do you see the link between installation and performance?
Rosa Valado: I love orchestrating an experience for the viewer by activating an existing space or designing a separate enclosure. Architecture, in addition to its functional components, has the power to move us intellectually and emotionally by the height of its ceilings, the tilt of the walls, the amount of light coming into the space.
In my first public installation at Herron Test-Site Gallery in 1992, I added music, an original composition written by Nathan Currier for the show, and inspired by the theme and title of the exhibition, “The Earth Is Dying”. I arranged the lighting to express the mood rather than to highlight individual works, and added the smell of burning wax to draw the viewer directly into an experience. Building on the subject matter of the previous work related to the earth, the environment, the physicality, and relationship to the human body – I continued to look for that quality of amber light that draws you towards the center of the earth. I had been very touched and influenced by Joseph Beuys’ shamanistic approach to performance, and my performances came out of a similar need to transform and empower.
When in the mid 90’s I became involved with the ideas coming out of the quantum field – refraction, and string theory – I decided to start building free-standing enclosures and look for a “cooler” quality of light from far-away. Simultaneously two vantage points in space: the close- up and all-engulfing perspective, and the one that looks towards or from a distant point. It was necessary to put the performances aside, temporarily, in order to explore the possibilities of transparent and light-reflecting materials, and grids in space. Although these two approaches might appear to be different bodies of work aesthetically, the micro and macro is becoming well reconciled in the work which I think needs to be shown together.
AS: Where would you place your installation work in context of contemporary immersive installations?
Rosa Valado: The art world feels like a different place now from when I started in the 90’s. There are more opportunities for contemporary immersive installations. The curatorial preferences then tended to separate painting (which everyone thought was dead) from sculpture or any type of 3-D work. There was also a strong taste for manicured, fabricated, industrial-looking art. Although there were artists whose work I really appreciated, Jessica Stockholder for example, most of their concerns were different from mine, regardless of aesthetics.
I found more support going back to the 60’s and 70’s, to Mario Merz (and now I know Marisa Merz’s work as well) and the Fibonacci series artists and some of the earthworks artists. But the strongest resonance was with James Turrell. I still love and admire his vision. Going back further, the Black Mountain School and people like Buckminster Fuller are always on my bookshelf, talking to me – I think most of the contemporary installation work of substance comes from these early turn of the century and mid-century pioneers who gave themselves permission to use art and creativity as a method for exploration more than style or commodity.
AS: In your installations you allude to religion with titles such as “heaven and earth”, to elements in nature such as water, trees, flowers, and to mathematical patterns such as in your “Corner Series.” What’s your take on these thematic associations?
Rosa Valado: I enjoy thinking that creativity and art are mega tools for exploring life, across every discipline. If I find some beautiful architecture that I love to spend time in, I might become interested in exploring its history and design, and probably wonder how I can recreate the feeling of that space in my work. In the case of the octagon, I found there were many small octagonal chapels built in the Renaissance, and all through history cross-culturally, I find octogonal spatial configurations. In some architectural texts I found out about the ancient belief in the various powers of geometric forms. The Octagon is described as a spatial “Transition Between Heaven and Earth”. I really enjoyed imagining what that could be. I also liked the description, so I used it as a title.
Corners came about in a similar exploration. I was looking at the space in my studio -when I had actual floor to ceiling walls – and got very inspired by the corners. It is such an active part of the room where two planes meet – the eye is constantly resting on that point – but there is not much you can do there. I found that just a short piece in the corner could activate the entire line, floor to ceiling. This work is a lot of fun for me, and very expansive.
The habit of carrying a small sketchbook around makes it easy for me to stop and draw or take notes. I really love being in nature and drawing directly from nature, or just walking around the neighborhood stopping to admire a plant or a garden. I’ve also read quite a bit about the patterns and systems of nature’s growth and it is wonderful discovering them through observation. When I started making art, my sources were very earth-centric. I thought a lot about the earth and the human body and the similarities between them as part of a living ecology; I continue to be fascinated.
AS: Let’s look at your scrolls.? What brought you there and how do you see them in context of your work?
Rosa Valado: The scrolls began with a crunch for time. My time in the studio became very fractured with new projects curating and producing. I was living and working in the same space so I came up with this format which I could resume at any time. At first it was more of a visual diary, drawing from the events of the day, then I added text, writing out thoughts and ideas. I wasn’t taking them very seriously at first – it was a way to keep the creative flow going.
As my studio got progressively smaller – eventually becoming nomadic for about 3 years – this format became my primary way of working. I could roll them out onto most surfaces and just pick up where I left off. Working from direct observation was very helpful in maintaining the focus and flow, using line as a recording system. The composition became more deliberate and the text got more organized. Eventually I painted it out and found the patterns very satisfying in contrast with the open graphite lines.
AS: You are also the founder of the Greenpoint Film Festival in 2011. What would you like to share about that and how (if at all), did the organization, or film overall, inform your work?
Rosa Valado: The Greenpoint Film Festival is a d.b.a. of Woven Spaces, an arts organization I had started in 1996 when the North Brooklyn had lots of abandoned land to dream of possibilities. The public art organizations in place at that time did not want to venture out into unknown territory unless the artist was super famous, so I took a lot of my projects out there under my own umbrella and fundraising. Woven Spaces produced and exhibited different forms of art with a focus on public/community projects; in recent years the Greenpoint Film Festival has taken a central role because it requires intense production schedules.
In 2011 the film industry was exploding, and the clean-up talks for the area got very serious, so the film festival made sense. The film industry has been growing in New York City, specifically in Brooklyn – it has replaced the fuel industry in the city. I became acquainted with the film world back in 1991, connecting with some great people in the Experimental Avant-Garde circuit, the group behind Anthology Film Archives. I feel very privileged to have been friends with Hollis Melton and Jonas Mekas and to have been welcomed into their home and inner circle for so many years. I was very inspired by their lives and their bravery in tackling large projects even when there was no money – they always found a way. Artists in this city are often inspired to reach beyond their studio walls into different areas, and disciplines, crossing the lines between creators, producers and presenters.
The Greenpoint Film Festival (GFF) presents a competitive program in all the film categories as well as curated programs of special interest by guest curators or of our own design. Film is a medium that can reach far and wide like no other; a great communicator of ideas. The last couple of years we have dedicated specific programming to films about artists, sometimes made by artists. They have been well attended and it is satisfying to see the art and film communities come together. I think it is important to note that as the number of artists grows, film might be an ideal way to support their careers and preserve the creative output. I never thought I’d be running the festival myself. I always envisioned passing GFF on to an experienced professional who can make it grand, and still hope to do so.
I’m not a filmmaker and never had a burning desire to make films. Though recently the need arose, and I directed a couple of very short documentary interviews but it’s clear to me that my work is in my own studio. To date I have not used film in my work, but I don’t rule it out.
AS: How do you think your work is developing now?
Rosa Valado: I’m now working in a small project-room-like studio, in sections, modules, scroll drawings and paintings – one section at a time. Although it is hard to see it all together it is following a plan for a multimedia installation for a gallery, building on what I’ve done before. Space restrictions have had some advantages – the work, individual pieces or in a group, is well suited to smaller exhibition spaces and options of marketability. Gallery exhibitions are a great way to communicate with art audiences – peers, professionals, and collectors. I really enjoy the dialogue that comes up at a gallery exhibition. I also continue to develop large indoor and outdoor projects – on the drawing board for now – and feel excited by the opportunities unfolding.